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Auroville Experience

February 2009


“This Pavilion has a unifying influence”

- From an interview by Alan

More than anybody else, Claude Arpi has held the vision and been responsible for the manifestation of the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture. Here he talks about the history and realisation of this extraordinary project.

Two views of the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture from the outside.


I already had the idea of a Tibetan Pavilion when I first arrived in Auroville in December 1974. I'd read Mother's Dream and her statements about the pavilions, and I already had a Tibetan connection: the previous year I had met the Dalai Lama's sister who had asked me to stay in Dharamsala and be the dentist at the Tibetan Children's Village.

In 1978 a group of us Aurovilians, including a few young Tibetans then living in Auroville, visited Dharamsala and met His Holiness. We told him that we wanted to build a Tibetan Pavilion in Auroville. He said, ‘Yes, yes.' Actually Auroville at that time was not ready to embark on such a project but it remained in my mind.

In 1990 we started discussing the Pavilion again. We drew up a more elaborate project and started working with Greta Jensen who was running a trust in the U.K. called ApTibet or Appropriate Technology for Tibetans. She was already getting funds from the European Commission for environmental projects for Tibetan settlements and in 1993 she helped us write a proposal.

At that time we referred to it as the ‘Pavilion of Tibet'. However, after the Chairman of Auroville Foundation referred the matter to the Ministry of External Affairs, we were told that we could not have a ‘Pavilion of Tibet' in the International Zone as the Government of India is involved in Auroville and Tibet is a politically-sensitive issue. Then Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, who was on the Governing Board at that time, suggested that we call it the ‘Pavilion of Tibetan Culture'. Everybody agreed.

The foundation stone

In early 1993 we requested the Dalai Lama to lay the foundation stone of the project. By a very strange coincidence, I received a phone call from Dharamsala informing me that he had accepted on the day that I was leaving for a visit to Tibet . So in Tibet I kept thinking “I must do something special for the inauguration”. Then, early one morning in Gyantse , Tibet 's second largest town, I saw a huge pile of big mud bricks. I put one in my bag for our foundation stone. It was quite an experience at Lhasa airport – the Chinese customs officers were very suspicious and put the brick through their x-ray machine three or four times before they let it through.

After the Dalai Lama came in December, 1993 and laid it as the foundation stone of the Pavilion, the brick became somewhat reduced in volume. You see, it was doubly sacred to Tibetans – it had come from Tibet and the Dalai Lama had touched it – so Tibetans started eating it as prasad! Eventually we had to put it behind glass.

Meanwhile, we were working on the design of the Pavilion. André Hababou had made a preliminary design which had the look of a Tibetan building. But when the Dalai Lama said the Pavilion should be environmentally-sensitive we decided to construct it using compresed earth blocks, and the only person in Auroville who could do this was Satprem. He took the project very seriously. He went cycling in the Himalayas to study Tibetan architecture and came back with the idea of designing the building according to the grid of the kalachakra mandala. This didn't fit with André's earlier plan and we had a clash between the two architects. Eventually, through Roger Anger's mediation, a third design emerged which was a combination of Satprem's grid with André's modern Tibetan look. The main building material was mud but there were also ferro-cement beams designed by our Centre for Scientific Research (CSR).


The funding challenge

However, in the process of changing the design, the building got much larger and our budget exploded. The European Commission had agreed to fund 50% of an earlier design, but now this was only a small portion of the funds we needed and we had to look elsewhere. It wasn't easy. We never knew where the next funds would come from, and sometimes we ran out completely and the work would stop. This is why it took us so long to complete the Pavilion – we started the foundations in 1997 and only finished it just before the inauguration.

We had help from many quarters. The Dalai Lama himself was very generous, even though he had said, when agreeing to be our Patron, that we shouldn't expect him to give any money! His sister, Mrs Jetsun Pema, who had invited me to be a dentist in Dharamsala also donated funds, as did the Tibetan Government in exile. A lot of money came from the Government of India and, during the last year, we raised eight lakhs from units and individuals in Auroville.

At times we were not sure if we would ever complete the Pavilion, so we decided to do something with the rooms we had already constructed. In the exhibition hall we held shows not only of Tibetan artists but also of Indian and Aurovilian artists. Similarly our conference room is used for meetings on topics like conciliation which are somehow linked with the Dalai Lama's first commitment to universal responsibility. In this way we tried to communicate the concerns of the Dalai Lama and the spirit of Tibetan culture.

Photo by Olivier
HH with the Auroville's Children's Choir.



The first completed pavilion

The Pavilion of Tibetan Culture is the first pavilion to be completed in Auroville. It probably happened because the Head of the State was fully behind it but it's also a statement about the strength and importance of Tibetan culture. In 1966 The Mother wrote that, From the spiritual point of view, the importance of a country does not depend on its size or its power or its authority over other countries, but on its response to Truth and on the degree of Truth it is capable of manifesting.

Somehow Mother's 1966 vision has taken shape and I'm happy to see that Auroville is one place on earth where the priorities are not upside-down. Many heads of state won't receive the Dalai Lama. Even our own Auroville Foundation didn't want to be officially associated with his visit (most of our present Governing Board members have never visited the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture). But we are fundamentally a cultural centre, we do nothing political, and the Government itself has always been supportive of the Pavilion. We have seen how helpful the State Government was in arranging the Dalai Lama's visit.

Tibetan culture has survived because it is so deeply-rooted. But while the purpose of the Pavilion is to help preserve that culture, we do not much emphasise the traditional rituals. Before the Dalai Lama's visit, a representative from one of the Tibetan settlements kept telling us that we were doing things the wrong way – the Dalai Lama's chair had to face in this direction etc. – but we told him we do things in our own way in Auroville, and if we do them sincerely, what's the problem? The Dalai Lama himself has said many times that the Pavilion is not a temple, not a monastery. But I'm afraid we will continue to get much pressure from the religious side….

Photo by Giorgio
Monks preparing for the inauguration

Very genuine

The appeal of the Dalai Lama transcends religion. Everywhere people are touched by him, his message of compassion and the oneness of the world and by the fact that he is the one world leader who puts the planet and not his own interests first. He is also very human, very genuine. When he stayed in Swagatham guest house, he went into the kitchen to meet the ammas who were preparing the food and he called the photographers to take a picture of him with them. He's like that, he talks to everyone; he makes no distinctions. There were 450 policemen in Auroville for his visit and they tried to keep a certain distance between him and the crowd but he kept jumping over to chat with people. It is no wonder that he was recently voted the most popular person on Earth by several Western publications.As to why it is important for Auroville to have the Pavilion here, the Dalai Lama spoke about this to the children (see box). But for me this Pavilion has had a unifying influence. So many people have worked on it or supported it. In fact, perhaps the most important consequence of his visit is that it brought a large number of Aurovilians to work together. For the last three months over 150 people, some of whom had not been on talking terms, worked together to make the visit a success. In Auroville we need more occasions like this.

Photo by Olivier

The Dalai Lama with Claude and Tency


The importance of Auroville for the Tibetan cause

After the inauguration of the Pavilion the Dalai Lama met some young Aurovilian children. They asked him about the importance of Auroville to the Tibetan cause.

HH: What's important is not numbers or power but quality. The Tibetans are few, only six million people. For the last thousand years the snowy mountains protected the Tibetans' spirit, their compassionate cultural heritage, which I think is not just the heritage of Tibetans but something that all humanity needs. So that's why the pavilion is here, to remind people that although we Tibetans are a small part of humanity we have some useful cultural heritage.”


Links in this website:
Tibetan Pavilion
The Visit by the Dalai Lama

Photo Gallery


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